High-Tech Ideas Grow in Camas

Logitech's team of engineers continues innovative tradition at new East County facility

What office worker wouldn't prefer the tranquility of working next to a golf course?

For a quick answer to that question, just ask any of the 110 employees of Logitech, Inc.'s new facility adjacent to Camas Meadows Golf Course – the pastoral backdrop for engineers working to develop some of the company's latest high-tech offerings.

"It's absolutely beautiful," said Mark Schneider, a vice president and manager of the Swiss peripheral device maker's audio division.

Schneider's division only recently moved into the Camas facility. The setting doesn't just offer pleasant vistas. The 70 audio engineers among Schneider's team, which moved from offices in Vancouver to the Camas facility in June, thrive on quiet as they meticulously tweak and measure sound.

According to Schneider, the unit develops self-amplified speakers for computers, accessories for digital music players such as a rechargeable iPod/iPhone dock, headsets used for Internet chatting and audio streaming devices. The company also sells a special line of "Ultimate Ears" headphones used as in-ear monitors for high-profile musicians and performers.

All these audio products are engineered in one place – Southwest Washington.

For many of the engineers at the Camas facility, their expertise evolved from knowledge developed at Labtec, the Vancouver-based firm acquired by Logitech in 2001 and an early leader in converting computer files to analog audio. According to Schneider, Logitech grew its business around Labtec's audio engineering experience.

"It's really where the center of excellence is within the company in terms of understanding digital audio – and as a result it would be very difficult to move this anywhere else," Schneider said of Labtec's home base in Vancouver. "You'd lose all the incorporated knowledge that has been built over time."

Logitech did consider locations throughout the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, including sites in Oregon, according to Bart Phillips, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

"Staying in the Portland area was something that was key for them," Phillips said. "The key piece for a knowledge-based business is to keep their talent and to recruit talent in the labor pool."

According to Schneider, getting the best performance from speaker drivers requires subtle knowledge developed over years at Labtec. Over the past two years, the company has added to its core knowledge with a testing system called "mean opinion scoring," or MOS, so it can assess sound quality against reference speakers and under a range of conditions with different types of listeners. Sound quality isn't as subjective as it might seem, Schneider said.

"The ability to rate the performance of these things is actually very surprisingly repeatable from person to person," he said. "If you think about it it's really a matter of physiology, not necessarily experience. Humans just hear sound in a certain way. Unless you have hearing loss it's repeatable from person to person."

The chance to improve this testing system was a factor that led to Schneider's team moving from Vancouver to Camas.

Today the company is building a dedicated MOS "scoring room" at Logitech's Camas facility that is flexible enough to be configured to different room sizes or featuring building materials that might deaden or amplify noise. That flexibility means a chance to test more listening environments in which customers might use Logitech's audio devices.

The new facility also gives Schneider's division the space for its own "anechoic chambers" – special rooms used to measure sound waves. These chambers must be large enough for repeatable tests from larger sound waves coming from subwoofers – a process Logitech used to perform off-site.08/20/2010 Edition.V2

Not anymore. "Our architectural firm worked directly with our acoustic engineers," Schneider said. "It's been a very special program."

The decision by Logitech to remain in the region was welcomed by tech industry boosters across Washington state.

"We are pleased to see another major technology brand choose to do business in Washington," said Susan Sigl, president and CEO of Seattle-based Washington Technology Industry Association. "There are pockets of innovation throughout eastern and southern Washington and this extended technology community continues to grow stronger as companies like Logitech bring their business to the state."

Chris Coleman, interim executive director of the Washington Technology Center, said Logitech's move to the Camas facility was good news for the region. According to Coleman, Logitech's continued presence in Southwest Washington helps companies connect with public funding and other resources as they develop products and technologies that promote jobs.

"It's not surprising they're staying in the region," Coleman said, noting a local "industry foundation" which included tech firms like Sharp Microelectronics in Camas and nearby educational institutions like Washington State University Vancouver. "Logitech will bring with it high-tech, high-paying jobs that will further diversify and strengthen the area's innovation potential."

Logitech's Camas facility will also house the company's new smartphone division, representing its expansion into a gigantic and growing advanced feature mobile phone market.

And according to Schneider, East County is the perfect place to develop the audio devices of tomorrow for Logitech.

"The fact that we are removed from a denser population area works out very well for us given that we want sound isolation for what we do," he said.